From Iceland — Reykjavik City Council Elects First Trans Council Speaker

Reykjavik City Council Elects First Trans Council Speaker

Published May 19, 2021

Photo by
Reykjavíkurborg/Elfa Björk Ellertsdóttir

Yesterday, Iceland made history when Reykjavík City Council elected Alexandra Briem of the Pirate Party to the position of Reykjavík City Council speaker, making her the first trans woman to hold that position.

“I’m honoured and slightly humbled by this responsibility,” Alexandra told the Grapevine. “Right now, I’m kind of thinking ‘what did I get myself into?’ but I’m sure it will turn out great.”

The city council holds elections for speaker every year, and the votes tallied in secret ballots showed all councilpersons in favour of Alexandra, with one abstention. She did not want to speculate on who this abstention might have been, but said, “I don’t get the impression that the councilor abstained because of transphobia, but more because of personal animosity or political differences. But for the most part it’s been widespread support across the spectrum.”

What it means to us, and the world

Alexandra believes the election has widespread implications, not just in Iceland but for other countries as well, and that there is a significant difference between believing something is possible and actually experiencing it happen.

“It’s important to affirm not just to us, as a country, that this is the sort of place that we are, and also to send a message abroad that this is what we do. This is who we publicly support, this is not something that is fiercely debated”

“It means a lot to me personally, because it validates that as an individual and as a politician I’m entrusted to take on this position, and as a transgender woman, I am not excluded by a glass ceiling from taking part in politics and taking prestigious offices because of social prejudices,” she told the Grapevine. “While Iceland is progressive on queer and transgender rights, compared to the rest of the world, and while we have probably thought that it was quite possible for a transgender person to be elected to a high political office in this country, it’s always different to feel that it’s possible than to see it actually happen; to have it confirmed in real life. There is substantial difference in how it feels. It’s important to affirm not just to us, as a country, that this is the sort of place that we are, and also to send a message abroad that ‘This is what we do. This is who we publicly support, this is not something that is fiercely debated and is not a decision that will cause cats and dogs to marry each other or for it to rain fire and brimstone.’ It’s very important to affirm to both ourselves and to other countries that this is the kind of country that we want to be.”

“I’m also proud to have been in the position that it made both political and professional sense for me to be given this responsibility,” she added. “Because I would not to have liked to think that I was put there as a placeholder or only to send a message, because that can also be harmful, in my opinion.”

The work done, and the work to be done

In terms of what Reykjavík can do for the advancement of trans rights in our city, Alexandra believes that there are a number of things that can still be improved.

“I would definitely recommend that if you’re thinking of going into politics, to just do it. It’s a great way to get your message out there, and to experience another facet of society.”

“First of all, I would just like to say that I’ve appreciated what Reykjavík City has been doing these past few years, especially [Pirate Party councilperson] Dórt Björt [Guðjónsdóttir] in her role as the chair of the Innovation, Human Rights and Democracy Council,” Alexandra emphasises. “It’s been really inspiring to see all the things that she’s been doing, and I’m really grateful to both the city and my party for how inclusive they have been. That said, there’s city policy on changing rooms and bathrooms. We’ve been hitting walls because of regulations and law. Another thing is the way we make contracts with third parties, such as sports organisations and third party organisations who do work for us on grants. They need to respect the Reykjavík City human rights policies, and those are policies that do go into trans rights, queer rights, and the rights of disabled people. If they want to keep receiving funding from us, then they’ll need to abide by that. It’s a bit of a legal minefield, but we are working on that and I think it’s important. Also, just how we as a system operate. We have to make sure that we don’t let people register as only male or female; that they can also register as other genders or no gender. Basically just in our language and our approach as a public body, we have to be a good example.”

Just do it!

Alexandra also offered some advice for other trans people in Iceland who might be thinking for getting into politics.

“I’m extremely hopeful for the future and I hope that other countries and other places will follow suit. I’m just amazed at the outpouring of support that I received from all sectors of society.”

“The simplest advice would be to do it,” she says. “I would also to say to not be afraid, because people in Iceland don’t really care about it. Even the more populist parties that may be tempted to take a stance against trans rights will mostly be doing it to try to get the votes off backwards, prejudiced people; most of them don’t really care one way or the other. And most people are, at least in the political sphere, quite accepting and positive, and I’ve never had any sort of issues anywhere in Reykjavík or in politics. I would definitely recommend that if you’re thinking of going into politics, to just do it. It’s a great way to get your message out there, and to experience another facet of society.”

That said, whether you’re trans or cis, politics does require considerable fortitude.

“Sometimes it’s not the right thing for you; sometimes you may want to be in grassroots or in a rights movement,” she says. “For the right sort of person, it’s definitely a good idea, but it can be difficult because politics can be tough. Be sure that you’re secure in yourself and who you are before you go into this, because your politics and even your personality can be a target, and you need a solid core of personality and truth to draw upon before you go into this, otherwise it can tear a person down over time. You need a thick skin, and you need this faith and knowledge of yourself.”

Our interview concluded with Alexandra on her way to work, offering in closing:

“I’m extremely hopeful for the future and I hope that other countries and other places will follow suit. I’m just amazed at the outpouring of support that I received from all sectors of society.”

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